HARWOOD, Md. | Maryland will this year become the 24th state to require an exit exam for graduation. As the state has slowly phased in its tests, known as the High School Assessments, the national debate continues about them in part because the federal No Child Left Behind law punishes schools that fail to raise test scores.
Michael Gordon is doing well at Southern High School, in Anne Arundel County, despite a neurological disorder that causes major learning disabilities. By working closely with teachers, he passed all his classes last year. He even made the honor roll.
But high-stakes tests are another matter. Barring a major policy reversal, the 16-year-old must pass tests in algebra, English, government and biology or complete equally rigorous projects in the subjects he fails. While special-education students can take a slightly easier version, they are required to earn the same scores as everyone else.
"If he does not pass these tests, he will not get a diploma," said his mother, Susan Gordon. "He will get a certificate of completion, and the door will be slammed in his face before he even gets there to get a job."
Supporters say such tests raise academic standards. But critics think they provide little benefit to those who pass and disproportionately affect students such as Michael - along with minorities and children living in poverty.
State public schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says naysayers' concerns are overblown. She thinks graduation rates could improve this year because the testing program has led to unprecedented attention for struggling students.
"There have always been kids who don't pass," she said. "But ...we think there will be very few, by virtue of not passing the High School Assessments, alone, as the single reason, that won't get a diploma."
It's not clear how many students are in danger of failing. Statewide results on last year's High School Assessments have not been released, and previous results were skewed by test takers who knew they could graduate without passing.
In June, the most recent month for which data was available, 88 percent of students in the class of 2009 who had taken all four tests either passed them all or achieved a combined score that will allow them to graduate. Over the past several years, Maryland public schools have had 60,000 to 62,000 seniors each year, and 55,000 to 57,000 have graduated. That means roughly 5,000 to 7,500 students could still need to pass to graduate.
The state Board of Education plans to review the guideline Oct. 28 and could reverse its decision to make the tests a graduation requirement.
Mrs. Grasmick's prediction that graduation rates could increase in Maryland contradicts most research. In 2006, the first year of California's exit exams resulted in a "substantial" increase in the dropout rate, according to a study by the Alexandria-based Human Resources Research Organization, an independent nonprofit group.
Maryland officials point to New York, which this year raised passing scores on its tests, as proof that a state can use exams to establish a minimum standard of achievement, then beef up that standard once students show they have little trouble passing.
The state offers some alternative paths to graduation, but teachers say they are unproven. The modified High School Assessment for special-education students, which has simpler questions and fewer multiple-choice options, was offered for the first time last school year.
Special-needs students will continue to get extra accommodations such as having tests read aloud or getting more time than their peers on the exams but will still have to make the score cutoff.
Some parents of special-education students appreciate the way the tests have pushed their children. Kelly Nelson told the school board that her autistic son, Vincent Piscano, was subjected to a more rigorous curriculum and is more prepared for college and the work force as a result of the tests. "If the HSAs go away, or special-education students don't have to take them, we might not learn what we need to learn," she said.